Once a Gophers coach, Frese now with Terps in national title game

Matt Anderson

Tonight Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese will lead her team against Duke in the national championship game.

Four years and four days ago, her last name was Oldfield, and she was in her last day as the coach at Minnesota. Now she’s advanced one game further than her former school did two seasons after her departure.

Because Gophers coach Pam Borton and Frese started at their current schools in the same year, the comparisons are inevitable.

Frese was at Minnesota for just one year – the 2001-2002 season. She inherited a program that had been to one NCAA Tournament in its history and was coming off seven-straight losing seasons. In the six years prior to Frese’s arrival, the Gophers won a combined eight conference games.

Her season at the Minnesota helm saw a marked turnaround. The team won 22 games, went 11-5 in the conference while finishing tied for second in the Big Ten, and won a game in the NCAA Tournament.

Then, as quickly as she turned the program around, she was gone. Fourteen days after the season ended, Frese bolted for the head job in Maryland. That left an opening for Borton to fill.

Borton was also an immediate success in the Twin Cities. She went to the Sweet Sixteen in her first season, the Final Four in her second, and got back to the Sweet Sixteen last season, her third.

This year, however, the Gophers took a step back. On Feb. 7, Minnesota was ranked 11th in the nation. The Gophers then lost four of six regular-season games. They followed that with first-round exits to lower seeded teams at the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments.

Potentially the scariest thing for the Gophers: As the years have passed, players recruited by Frese have waned. So too has the team’s success.

A Final Four in 2004. The Sweet Sixteen in 2005. A first round tournament exit this year. Next season, for the first time, all the players on the Minnesota roster will be Borton recruits – which won’t include this year’s Associated Press Minnesota State Player of the Year Jenna Smith, a 6-foot, 3-inch center from Bloomington’s John F. Kennedy High School, who will play for Illinois.

That’s not to say there’s any reason for panic at Williams Arena. Next season’s recruiting class is still ranked 11th nationally by the Blue Star recruiting service and includes national top 30 recruits Brittany McCoy and Korrine Campbell. The team will return talent with the likes of Natasha Williams and Kelly Roysland.

Still, while Borton’s team took a step back this year, Frese still is enjoying her best season at Maryland.

After taking a Terrapins team that had been to two NCAA tournaments in the seven years before she became coach to consecutive tournaments in 2004 and 2005, the program is still in the middle of a breakout season.

Maryland is 33-4 and playing for the national championship tonight. In the national semifinal Sunday, the Terrapins stopped Ivory Latta and North Carolina, handing the Tarheels their second loss of the season. Carolina’s only other loss? Also to Maryland.

While Borton was struggling to beat the top teams in the Big Ten this season (Minnesota was 1-4 in conference against Big Ten teams ranked in the AP top 25), Frese’s squad was breaking through against the Atlantic Coast Conference’s elite. Maryland finished 3-3 versus Atlantic Coast Conference teams in the top 25, including an Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament win over Duke and Sunday’s victory against North Carolina.

But perhaps most striking in the comparison between Borton and Frese is one stylistic difference in coaching.

Borton notoriously has been reluctant to play underclassmen. Freshman guard Emily Fox, a national top-50 recruit, saw scant playing time down the stretch and sophomore Brittney Davis didn’t see significant minutes until the regular season was winding down.

By contrast, Maryland has been playing freshmen and sophomores. The Terrapins’ top two scorers are underclassmen, as are their three leading rebounders. Two of their top three leaders in assists this year are Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman – both freshmen.

This isn’t to say Borton isn’t a good coach, or even that she isn’t as apt a fit at Minnesota as Frese. But with the success Frese is having in Maryland, she is clearly an excellent coach. With Borton, the jury is still out.

Matt Anderson welcomes comments at [email protected].